Hooray, Guillermo del Toro has recovered from the triumph of The Shape of Water. His Nightmare Alley is a pitch-black parable about an unmerciful charlatan, in dazzling settings.
“Success and failure are neighbours without house numbers. You knock on the door without knowing who will answer.” That is the philosophy of the Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro. When he rang the bell with his previous film, Success opened. The romantic monster film The Shape of Water won both the Oscar for best film and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
That makes it just that bit easier to get a comfortable budget and some big names together for the next film fairy tale. Del Toro took advantage of this room for manoeuvre to film Nightmare Alley, a morbid book by William Lindsay Gresham. It has already been filmed in 1947 with one of the Hollywood stars of the time, Tyrone Power. There could be no blacker film noir.
Midwest America, at the end of the harsh 1930s. A penniless loner runs away from his past. You will recognise Bradley Cooper, the actor from A Star Is Born and Silver Linings Playbook. His character, Stan, goes from zero to hero to below zero. The climb begins in the travelling circus of a director (Willem Dafoe) with a collection of babies in formalin. Without scruples, he turns drunks into savages who bite the throats of live chickens to entertain the public.
Stan turns out to be good at reading people and playing on their gullibility, ideal for a clairvoyant act. Years later, the charlatan can live lavishly on his own stage show with the most beautiful circus girl (Rooney Mara) by his side. But it is never enough and so begins the dizzyingly deep fall.
With the help of a psychologist, at least his equal in manipulating people, he offers his psychic services to a sadistic tycoon (Richard Jenkins). Cate Blanchett dazzles as a femme fatale who makes Art Deco palaces look even better.
A family of freaks
Nightmare Alley has not become a noir de noir that slaps you to the canvas. It is too much of a fairy tale à la Del Toro for that. Fortunately, there is a great deal of compensation. The circus chapter lasts a long time because Del Toro has palpable sympathy for the colleagues from show biz who are sometimes considered freaks but form a family and, like him, train themselves in the art of lying and enchanting.
But above all, he allows himself the time and space masterfully to work out the circus world and then the American high society with an army of talented set designers, costume designers and props makers. The sumptuous photography does justice to the fabulous mise en scène. The Shape of Water has been given a spectacular follow-up.
US, dir.: Guillermo del Toro, act.: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe